Tiny Little Pieces



Charles LeDray: workworkworkworkwork
Whitney Museum of Art, NYC
Through February 13, 2011

Even in the metric age we still measure animals and things in hands and feet. So acute is our need for a haptic experience of our surroundings that the measure of the man, so to speak, is the measure of the universe. In the beautiful retrospective of the sculptures of Charles LeDray, currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, we find this basic tenant upturned as we enter a Lilliputian world of very tiny things.

LeDray has spent the better part of two decades crafting a world of everyday objects, faithfully replicated in miniature. Entering the galleries of these minute versions of pottery, men’s clothes and uniforms, teddy bears and furniture one finds oneself suddenly Gulliverized, made aware of one’s clumsy corporeal bigness. The 14th century Saint Augustine wrote: "Look and see; feel and see…see with your eyes…see with all your senses. Because [Christ] was seeking the inner sense of faith, he apprehended also the outer senses."

It is not such a stretch to attribute such a liturgical reading to LeDray's works as it might seem. Little versions of what resemble Psalm books ("Dispatch #1" 1992, "Work Book" 2004) and the Homely Protestant-like "Sturbridge Cobbler's Bench" (2000) lend themselves to such a Puritanical reading of LeDray’s oeuvre. The very nature of his disciplined, fingers-to-the-bone method of production almost seems to illustrate the dictum “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” In fact “Ring Finger” (2004) gives us that finger worked to the bone; a carved bone replica of a human digit wearing a wedding ring. "Worked to the bone" and "to death do us part" are slyly intertwined. “Wheat” (2000) another bone piece offers the transmogrification of the Communion Host’s transubstantiation into our own bone machines. Even at his pithiest we cannot shake the religious underpinnings of LeDray’s work. "Family" (1985), two pint-sized plush teddy bears riding a donkey to their first Christmas is a clever Nativity rendered heartbreakingly cute.

Other toy-like pieces of teddy's and a comical kitty licking herself ("Pretty Teacher" (1993), as well as several vitrines filled with his signature small ceramic works offer a slightly different riff on the theme of "work". Multi-tiered glass cases are packed with hand-thrown vases, plates, bowls, etc., some black and white, some faithfully recreated with colored glazes and handpainted designs. One imagines a make-believe tea party. LeDray draws us into the world of children, whose imitation of adults is play, dressed in the trappings of grown-up work. Children learn through the simulation of adult behaviors and activities, a metaphor on some levels of how LeDray's sculptures function; art, imitating craft, imitating art. The tactile materials -- velvets, clays, buttons and cloth, though rendered untouchable through their art-object status -- hold such a primal place in our collective memories that although we can’t actually touch them, we can imagine we feel them.

Lest we feel too burdened with a feeling of our own Sloth in the face of such industry, LeDray gives us the witty "Straightjacket" (2005), with its nod to Jack Nicholson in The Shining, banging away at his typewriter "all work and no play…"

The show concludes with the tripartate "Men's Suits" (2009), an installation of small, diorama-like rooms which resemble floors of a men's department at Bloomingdales. Tiny suits, ties, clothing racks and hangers occupy two of the little sets, while the third, comprised of hampers, pallets, boxes and bins gives us Filene's Basement. Panels of fluorescent lighting hang low, illuminating the three floors of the store, creating an eerie feeling of emptiness, casting us into the role of night-shift security making the rounds. This piece, more complex psychologically, weaves all the elements of LeDray's process into one tableau. We see the racks and piles of little handmade replica clothing, the bins and boxes, carts and racks, and can imagine ourselves browsing through the tie selection. All this work, far from making Charles a dull boy, has made him a fascinating artist. - Bradley Rubenstein

Mr. Rubenstein is a painter, story teller, and smart culture aficionado.